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UPD2 UK ISPs React as ASA Start Enforcing New Broadband Advertising Rules

Sunday, April 1st, 2012 (12:14 am) - Score 1,615
broadband speed dial

The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) will, from today (Sunday 1st April 2012), officially begin enforcing a new set of guidelines that have been designed to clamp down on misleading ISP promotions of broadband internet access speeds and “unlimited” style usage allowances.

The new guidance (original news) has been designed to bring greater clarity to the market by requiring ISPs to provide a more honest account of both their service performance and flexibility to consumers. But the new rules are somewhat limited in their scope and could suffer due to a serious lack of strict enforcement measures (the ASA can only ban an advert and cannot impose any real fine or other penalty).

The New ASA Guidelines

Firsly, terminology like “unlimited” can now only be used if the customer incurs no additional charge or suspension of service as a consequence of exceeding a usage threshold associated with a Fair Usage Policy (FUP), Traffic Management or similar policy. The ASA also expects any limitations that affect the speed or usage of a service to be moderate and clearly explained in any advertisements.

A series of new rules have also been created to stop ISPs from advertising unachievable broadband speeds, which has a particular relevance for customers who subscribe to one of the dominant ‘up to’ 8Mbps (ADSL) or ‘up to’ 20-24Mbps (ADSL2+) based internet access services that are known for their highly variable (poor) performance.

New ASA Broadband Speed Rules

* An ISP should be able to demonstrate that its advertised speeds are achievable by at least 10% of users (this is expected to be reviewed every 6 months or so).

* Speed claims must also be accompanied by a warning, which references the fact that a significant proportion of subscribers receive a speed that falls considerably short of what consumers might reasonably expect the service to offer.

* In certain instances (e.g. ADSL2+ services) a significant proportion of an ISP’s customer base might receive a maximum speed that is much lower than the advertised maximum. When this happens a provider must qualify with a sort of “typical speed” range (e.g. “X% of our customers receive speeds between ??Mbit/s and ??Mbit/s”).

It’s useful to put these new guidelines into perspective. Ofcom’s latest November 2011 research into the country’s national average broadband ISP speeds (here) suggests that the change will not have much of an impact upon the new generation of superfast broadband products from BT, Virgin Media and others (Cable, Fibre Optic – FTTC, FTTH etc.).

Superfast broadband services tend to deliver a much faster and more reliable connection (i.e. according to Ofcom they advertised an average of 37.4Mbps and actually delivered 35.5Mbps), which means that related packages would still be able to promote their top speeds or at least very close to that.

But the situation for unreliable ADSL and ADSL2+ services, which are highly susceptible to copper telephone line related reliability and performance problems, couldn’t be more different. Ofcom’s data suggests that most 20-24Mbps (ADSL2+) services, which account for the vast majority of UK connections, can only deliver average real-world speeds of just 7Mbps.

That’s a huge difference and the ASA suggests that, under its 10% rule, ‘up to 14Mbps’ might be more viable for ADSL2+ providers but some ISPs could be forced a lot lower. Meanwhile 8Mbps (ADSL) would probably need to advertise as “at least 10% get 6Mbps“. The figure would vary between ISPs, which have incidentally given a mixed response to the change; but most are at least adapting

A BT Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

BT has moved away from advertising broadband with ‘up to’ speeds. Our latest Infinity adverts highlight comparisons instead, such as four times faster than Sky broadband, which is based on industry speed data.

We give bespoke speed estimates to all customers at the point of sale and this is now underwritten by the Code of Practice. No customer should be in any doubt as to the likely speed that they should expect from our service – before they make a purchase decision.”

An Entanet Spokeswoman told ISPreview.co.uk:

Whilst we strongly believe the new guidelines will only cause more confusion amongst end users and that the ASA/CAP have not adequately considered the impact on the wholesale model within the channel, we are of course complying with the guidelines and are currently working on a new report within synergi (our partner interface) that will provide our channel partners with the speed information they need to adhere to these guidelines from 1st April. We will also be carefully monitoring the market’s response to the guidelines and their impact in the market place once they have taken effect.

Additionally, we have concerns over ISPs rejecting orders from rural locations in a bid to keep their headline speeds high. Equally, these new guidelines are likely to affect ISPs that have a predominantly rural customer base, as they mayappear less attractive to potential customers when compared to national providers or those targeting urban areas where higher average speeds can be achieved.”

Jon James, Virgin Media’s Executive Director of Broadband, told ISPreview.co.uk:

More and more people are choosing fibre optic broadband and making the most of superfast speeds. Virgin Media continues to deliver the UK’s fastest broadband, over and above what we advertise according to Ofcom, and we’re about to boost the speeds of millions of homes yet again with our doubling upgrade and the introduction of 120Mb. It’s good to see Britain’s broadband speeds moving in the right direction and the new advertising rules will, for the first time, force our competitors to be more honest about their “up to 24Mb” claims. We hope they’ll try to keep up.”

Crucially the ASA/CAP expects all qualifications of broadband speed to be “prominent, appearing in the body copy of non-broadcast marketing communications” and the equivalent for claims appearing in broadcast advertisements. This is designed to make it harder for ISPs to hide any nasty’s away in the small print (T&C’s).

Furthermore the ASA told us that “upload speed claims should [also] conform to the guidance where relevant“. However upload speed is usually more reliable and most ISPs do not even promote this.

Overall consumers should benefit, provided all of the extra information is clearly displayed and explained. In an ideal world the rules would also make it easier to spot an underperforming provider but this could prove difficult, especially with some ISPs choosing to hide their “typical” performance figures behind a subscription process. That could potentially make it harder to compare providers.

UPDATE 2nd April 2012

Some new comments coming in.

Dana Pressman-Tobak, Managing Director of Hyperoptic, said:

This move from Committee of Advertising Practice will undoubtedly shake up the broadband industry, as consumers will now have factual average speeds revealed to them, rather than the theoretical “up to” speeds that providers have been relying on to date. With the average Briton struggling on a 7 mbps connection and in reality experiencing hugely reduced ‘lower than advertised’ speeds, it’s no surprise that the UK fails to make the world’s top 10 high-speed broadband countries.

This new legislation should go a long way to help remove the smoke and mirrors that happen within the broadband industry and help to differentiate new approaches. Internet service providers who operate their own networks and can therefore control speeds will be at a huge advantage. Hyperoptic, which has its own point to point FTTP network and can deliver genuine hyper-fast broadband, can now fully differentiate itself to other offerings on the market. The truth is, if you want to ensure you get the faster speed, every time, then the only answer is fibre.”

UPDATE 3rd April 2012

We’ve taken a quick look to see how ISPs are adjusting but confusion remains rife (here).

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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10 Responses
  1. Avatar New_Londoner

    The comments from Jon James are unintentionally ironic. I imagine he’d be a lot less happy if Ofcom moved to something more meaningful like throughput measures given the ever growing complaints from cable customers about appalling performance due to congestion, made worse by long delays before any action is taken as investment is required.

  2. Avatar Deduction

    A BT Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:
    “BT has moved away from advertising broadband with ‘up to’ speeds. Our latest Infinity adverts highlight comparisons instead, such as four times faster than Sky broadband, which is based on industry speed data.”

    Yeah BT maths fail again what a shocker! Or maybe its just another fail for them to interpret OFCOM data.

    Ofcom data which BT so prominently put in print at the bottom of their latest TV advert at the bottom of the screen.

    If the UK average is 7Mb then i can only assume Infinity is a poor product which doesnt do 40Mb but only 28Mb (7×4=28 or it did when i went to school BT).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOyL-4y7S84

    Oh and why you are at it scrap your bundle deal adverts that are still blabbering on your broadband is unlimited……. NEW RULES about that and traffic management BT…… Next round of TV adverts expect a nice letter from the ASA about soon (AGAIN) LOL

  3. Avatar Deduction

    The ofcom report measures throughput speeds.

    Virgin performed well in throughput speed as also indicated in the May 2011 Ofcom report data BT are using in their adverts…

    http://www.ispreview.co.uk/story/2011/07/27/ofcom-reveals-uk-average-broadband-isp-speeds-reach-6-8mbps.html

    Every claim he makes is backed up by ofcom data. BTs though seems to contradict it, BT have gone from over estimating the speeds with 40Mb claims to under estimating it with 4x faster than average claims. Obviously they can not do maths or even count.

    Virgin aint perfect though, infact both BT and Virgin also need to stop using the “UNLIMITED” catchphrase now as both services have FUP and traffic management. particularly on torrents LOL

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      Suggest you read up on this, things have really gone downhill since the last report. Just look at the growing volume of posts from very unhappy cable users, especially those on the faster services.

  4. Avatar New_Londoner

    More generally, difficult to see the people that don’t grasp “up to” getting to grips with the small print that will be needed to explain the new numbers. And how long before complaints from people on long lines that ISPs don’t want to provide them with service as it will affect their stats?

    A perfect storm of dumbing down and unintended consequences!

  5. Avatar Paul.

    Well done to Jon James of Virgin for getting an advert for his company in this article, instead of using the opportunity to make a proper comment on a change in the advertising rules that benefit the public.

  6. Avatar Deduction

    @Newlondoner

    NO i suggest you stop blindly defending BT and attacking virgin… I dont need to read up and things have not altered much since the may 2011 ofcom report either
    http://www.ispreview.co.uk/story/2012/02/02/ofcom-confirms-uk-average-broadband-isp-downloads-speeds-hit-7-6mbps.html
    FEB 2012 up to date enough for you.

    Neither Virgin or BT are perfect, they both have advantages and disadvantages. Id actually be bothered to list both, but lgic you have shown is wasted on you.

    Its about time UPTO was banned, if a company can not give xxMb in speed they shouldnt be allowed to advertise it, no matter who the company is.

    Same goes for unlimited claims from providers with small print FUPs or Traffic Management. I for one am glad that is going to be cracked down on.

    Enough of their fantasy adverts, time for some reality.

  7. Avatar dragoneast

    I think the “big boys” (BT, Virgin, Sky, TT, Orange etc.) can look after themselves – though not their customers evidently, hence the need for such rules.

    My concern would be if the smaller, specialist ISPs give up on residential users due to cost and complexity, a reduction in choice and possibly quality of service too. The big ISPs like to muddy the water and sow confusion; but the biggest influence on quality is the DSL technology available to you in the exchange or Cab and backhaul quality, followed by your own equipment and the local loop, probably in that order. Much of it is outside the ISPs control, especially in the Market 1/2 areas of poorer speeds. Not too many people, I suspect, would think it sensible that a supermarket should be told that chalk and cheese should be sold together in the same packaging.

  8. Avatar Bob2002

    They could have just asked ISPs to say speeds will vary due to line length and quality, but oh no that’s far too simple.

  9. Ofcom’s speed code somewhat already asks ISPs to say that and most of the main ones do, but that’s not really enough.

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